Life in balance

Yoga balanceIt started off with yoga class. Each week, our teacher designs a sequence of asanas to address a specific focus, for example: back bends, forward bends, hip openers, twists or, as was the case last week, balance. When Jude informed us that we were about to embark upon a balancing adventure (or words to that effect), I readied myself for the voyage of inward discovery that this usually entails.

The thing about balance is that it is not a given. It could go either way. It takes effort and concentration and, as our teacher pointed out to us, when you are balancing – be it in tree pose or crow or eagle or whatever – you are not thinking about anything else. After arriving at yoga class with a head full of chatter, stress and judgements, it is no bad thing to empty it all out whilst tottering on one’s tippy toes (or hands) and quite possibly, in the process, discovering previously unknown capabilities. Even so, the prospect can cause some pre-asana anxiety, perhaps because we aren’t very good at handling uncertainty and balancing is, in a way, a state of sustained uncertainty.

With this in mind, the following day I set off to do some rolling practice. I’ve recently been working quite diligently on norsaq and hand rolls, but on my previous outing, I lost my hand roll completely and my norsaq roll seemed a bit of a struggle. This left me with a sense of unfinished business which is quite a distortion really. I mean, if I were to get hung up on unfinished things, there would be rather an endless list to ponder (the other 30+ Greenland rolls, learning to speak French, the housework …). But still, the thought of having lost my hand roll  irritated me like velcro underwear, and I had to address it.

Balance BraceAt some deeper level, I intuited that there was a missing link in my versions of those rolls that don’t involve a paddle. I’ve mentioned before how a Greenland paddle acts as a teacher and, certainly, rolling with this ancient technology is a bit like grasping a hand from the past. When the paddle is there, I have found that it can guide you through the water and allow you to position your body appropriately, without struggle,  if you let it. Without the paddle, the rolls were all down to me and seemed to require a lot more exertion and striving. After starting off badly, oomphing my way through yet another failed attempt, I reminded myself of the advice given to me by Mackayak in Orkney which was to focus first and foremost on the balance brace. I also recalled being inspired by this particular video which clearly demonstrates effortless hand rolling up into, indeed, a balance brace. I had only ever experienced this before with the help of my paddle as part of a butterfly roll. I therefore realised that it’s not all about desperately competing for success on the back deck, so much as simply reaching a state of  balance.

I proceeded to practice slipping on and off of the deck of my kayak with the aid of my paddle, then letting go of the paddle whilst maintaining the brace. I then focused on getting back on to the back deck in one swift move as this essentially constitutes the last part of the roll. Next up, I tried a full norsaq roll. For the first time, I did not aim for glorious success in one movement, but rather I sought to simply reach the surface of the water and stay there. To my delight, it was a quite achievable thing, and then purely a case of getting from there to the back deck as I’d practised. Next, I tried it with my webbed rolling mitts, with the same result. A breakthrough!

Just like in yoga, balancing in Greenland rolling is all about clearing out distracting thoughts (of anxiety, success, failure, unfinished housework) and simply concentrating on holding a steady bearing right in this very moment. In many respects, it is a Middle Way, a path of moderation and equilibrium between the extremes of hopeless defeatism and questionable triumph. Perhaps in times of uncertainty, it’s the best path to take.

Moving goalposts (and pushing envelopes)

Fairlie to Cumbrae and backThe summer days of July have well and truly arrived here on the west coast of Scotland. How do I know?

  • The calendar says so.
  • The schools are all on holiday.
  • It’s blowing a gale and raining torrentially.
  • The garden now looks like a bombing range.

Yes, gone is the tranquility of balmy May and June and now we have some proper Scottish summer weather.  Never mind, we have used this as an opportunity to switch focus from journeying, to expanding our skills and experience in less-than-tranquil conditions.

Alan is happy

Alan is happy

On that note, I’ve seen a change in Alan recently. Gone is the mild-mannered, fair-weather paddler I loved and in his place is this other chap, whose eyes light up at the sight of white caps, whose shoulders slump at the prospect of calm seas, who laughs (I’d say a little demonically) at wind and waves. All of which places yours truly in an awkward position.

Anyone who knows me as a kayaker will not immediately leap to associations of high-risk, adrenaline-soaked feats of paddling derring-do at the mention of my name. Rather, they might think of a nice, sensible day out in nice, sensible conditions with perhaps some seal-spotting and a bit of lunch thrown in. Regardless, and no matter how much I drag my heels along the sand, somehow I find myself bobbing about on lumpy seas more than my nice, sensible self thinks desirable. Alan’s latest proclivity is therefore not helping.

On our way to Cumbrae

On our way to Cumbrae

The word came from Julia that a group was going out on Saturday and we were invited to join in. I’d seen the forecast of background winds of nearly 20 mph and gusts of over 30 mph. In addition, Julia used certain phraseology that caught my attention, such as: “looking for waves”, and something (that I think was intended as reassurance) about folks being available to “pick up the pieces if things go pear-shaped”. I duly convinced myself that this was not for me. No thank you. I would be perfectly happy staying at home sobbing at my complete lack of gumption catching up on housework. I’d even changed into non-paddling attire, when Alan informed me that wild horses wouldn’t stop him he’d quite like to go. He then advised that, for reasons of kayak-loading group logistics, he couldn’t double up with Julia and he’d therefore be in the car on his own … with an empty cradle beside his kayak …

My hat out kayaking

My hat out kayaking

So there I was heading down to Fairlie, trying my best to drown out all the little alarm bells sounding inside my head. I was reminded of my yoga practice, where certain postures are made so much more difficult by mental (and physical) resistance and I tried not to become my own worst enemy. Once on the water, we aimed for Great Cumbrae. It was a bit of a slog and I rued my inaction about pursuing a repair to my skeg. For some time, it’s been a bit sticky, to say the least. Once it’s down, it’s all the way down and no further adjustment (including retraction) is possible. I therefore prefer to leave it up. Lewis kindly reminded me to edge and this immediately assisted matters.

Nearing Millport

Nearing Millport

Upon reaching Cumbrae, we proceeded towards Millport. With southwesterly winds blowing, the south end of Great Cumbrae is associated with a certain quality of wildness, something I’d been anticipating since our destination was made known. Upon reaching that locale, Alan’s eyes duly lit up while mine didn’t so much light up as fill up. Well, not exactly … but the waves did take on a slightly more formidable quality and I found myself once again seated in the departure lounge of my comfort zone. Maria prompted me to remember that, as much as there is a certain awe and beauty in the waves, it’s actually better to paddle vigorously through them as opposed to stopping to admire them.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Inside my head

Lewis also helped me with various pointers and assurances, including an exercise in paddling with one’s eyes closed to gain an appreciation of the fact that the waves are merely moving up and down. This certainly helped me swap out the images inside my head with something more akin to, you know, reality. It is very much a head game, where the senses undergo a bit of an onslaught and the mind takes off and runs with it.

Millport

A nice spot for lunch

Observed by a lone grey seal, we stopped for lunch at one of the little islands in front of Millport just in time for the sun to come out. Thereafter, it was back into the rough and tumble for a play. The word “play” does suggest fun and enjoyment, doesn’t it? I could see that that was the experience of my “playmates” and I envied their confidence. I found heading into the wind quite do-able and would probably have ended up on the shores of Little Cumbrae had it not been agreed that we were not to do that. I am not super-keen on paddling downwind in such conditions. I like to know what’s behind me and my imagination runs riot as soon as I feel my stern lift. I then become caught in a battle between learning the skills to best handle the surf and stay upright, and not becoming distracted from staying the heck upright. Out on the waves, rational thought becomes optional. But, like everything else, it’s a question of getting used to it. Meanwhile, Alan’s grin was getting wider.

I get by with a little help ...

I get by with a little help ...

We re-grouped to head back to Fairlie. This meant negotiating the bigger waves again side on and I very much appreciated the company of Lewis as we rounded the bend to the east side of Great Cumbrae.

Alan had already practised his roll successfully out off Millport, but I saved mine for the end. I’ve had a little trouble on practice nights lately and have only now determined that it relates to using my spare (Lendal) paddle. My roll is feeling great with my Werner paddle, but not so great with the Lendal. Another little piece of the blade angle puzzle to figure out. On this day, I was using the Werner, so all was well and there were no tears before bedtime.

Heading back

Heading back

During the return journey, I noticed that, already, the goalposts had moved, the envelope had been pushed (and sealed and mailed off) and that what I would have thought of as a bit choppy when we started out, was now a welcome patch of (relative) calm. This is why opportunities such as these are so good for anyone who wants to become a more self-confident paddler. I read a commentary recently about how a fear of dying can become a fear of living. Likewise, in the world of sea kayaking, a fear of conditions can, if one is not careful, become a fear of learning.

Seeing as I wrote this on July 4th, I don’t mind declaring my interdependence on, and appreciation of, a group of friends who happen to be rather good at paddling. It has made all the difference to Alan and me to be able to push ourselves and, judging by that grin that’s still on Alan’s face, I have a feeling those goalposts aren’t going to stay put for long.

And I, I don’t want no money from you
I don’t want promises that you’ll be true
You can do anything you wanna do
All I ask is that you … you push me to my breaking point …

The Breaking Point, Shooter Jennings and Hierophant, Black Ribbons

Getting warmer

Karitek Demo Day at FairlieAfter a weekend off from kayaking (other than the pool), it was back to normal last weekend as a group of us rendezvoused at Fairlie on Saturday. This was in order to coincide with the Karitek demo day being held there as we were all anxious to fondle the lovely range of Rockpool, P&H and UKSK kayaks on display. Of course, Alan and I are not in the market for another kayak, but it’s always nice to look at the latest offerings regardless. Hopefully the good people of Karitek didn’t notice mind one chap testing out Alan’s Nordkapp.  We bumped into quite a few “well kent” faces from the paddling world and it was only after Alan had launched my kayak without me in it that I took the hint, stopped chatting and  jumped in. Apart from anything else, I didn’t want it to be inadvertently taken out for a demo and returned to Karitek!

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

We headed over to Little (or Wee) Cumbrae and stopped there for lunch. The island is under new management in the form of the Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust. As a yoga student myself, I am of course pleased that the island will be used as a centre for yoga and the promotion of ayurvedic wellbeing and non-harming – a much more favourable prospect than the potential shooting and quad biking options that were advertised on the prior “for sale” listing (somewhat oxymoronically alongside birdwatching). I have it on good authority that the owners are welcoming to sea kayakers, merely requesting that visitors respect the island’s ethos, although disappointingly allegedly, it is not necessary to swear an oath of vegetarianism in order to land (but don’t quote me on that).

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

We consumed lunch beside the square Castle remains and did a bit of exploration both inside and outside. Sufficiently fortified (us, not the Castle), we were back in our kayaks to cross over to Millport on Great Cumbrae for further sustenance in the form of a hot beverage in the Ritz Cafe. Following that, we hopped back to Fairlie, passing Hunterston’s terminal where a bulk carrier all the way from China was now berthed. Landing back at the beach should have been an uneventful affair, had it not been for Alan’s back going into a spasm which found him writhing about on the ground emitting “man groans” (akin to “man flu” in terms of the immensity of suffering involved). Not only that, my efforts to assist my fellow paddlers went horribly awry when I tripped over a stone and promptly dropped my end of Henrik’s kayak.  Henrik was very gracious about it and I didn’t even see him applying the duct-tape before putting his kayak back on the car roof.

Heading to Millport

Heading to Millport

One thing had become apparent during our outing and that was the almost, but not quite, spring-like quality to the day. In fact, we almost, but not quite, entirely dispensed with our pogies, neck gaiters and hats. At least I thought about it. Any weekend  now, I reckon.

And speaking of getting warmer, we’ve been trundling along to the pool each Friday evening to diligently work on skills improvement. A week ago on Friday, I jumped in, capsized and had the mental equivalent of a computer’s “blue screen”. The rolling program in my mind did not start and all that was left in my head was a blinking cursor.

Action shot

Action shot

There was no-one more surprised than I was about this. But it was actually a good thing as it caused me to have a total “reboot” (I won’t say where). I took myself (and Alan) back up to the shallow end and got right back to basics, once again building up what I consider to be the 2 core elements: sweep and head position. A bit of video replay had revealed a virtual absence of both which I soon corrected and was back feeling more confident by the end of the evening. In retrospect, I’d known that something wasn’t quite right the week beforehand and that my rolls were pretty laboured, but I hadn’t been able to fix it. So sometimes it’s better to utterly fail in order to deconstruct then reconstruct. The key is not to self-destruct, and that initself is a skill.

“You’re the only one who knows when you’re using things to protect yourself and keep your ego together and when you’re opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is – working with it rather than struggling against it. You’re the only one who knows.”
Ani Pema Chödrön

Peace and reflection

It seems we’ve finally reached that point. Destinations have been arrived at (or not, dependent on the weather where you live), presents have been exchanged, food and drink are being consumed and Christmas is almost over. It’s therefore a good opportunity to think back on the year that’s passed by, both the good and the bad bits.

Let’s focus on the good bits. For me, there have been a lot of them, ranging from “routine” pleasures such as yoga class, reading good books, watching birds appear at the feeder etc, to special occurrences such as fully restored vision, no MS relapses and a clear c-spine MRI. As I ponder the past 12 months, however, one thing becomes evident – the really good bits, the ones that stand out the most, tend to involve kayaks and salt water.

Perhaps other paddlers are reaching the same realisation, and it’s interesting to consider why this is so. Of course, there are many positives to kayaking, including: excellent paddling pals, visiting beautiful places, getting up close and personal with the wildlife, gaining confidence from improved skills and so on. To me, however, there’s a little more to it. At risk of being labelled a sandal-wearing, granola-eating hippy, allow me to get a little “spiritual” on you for a moment.

In our technological age, we’ve largely parted company with our roots as nature-based people. In thousands of generations of humanity, only about the last six represent the Industrial Age, an era of technological advancement and consumption that has been accelerated by the abundance of petroleum products. We could view this as evolution, and of course it contains many positives, but we could consider how it has also produced barriers between us and the natural world, as evidenced by the damage to our environment.

At our core, we recognise that something essential and intuitive to us is now missing from our everyday lives. This is the reason why we thrill at natural beauty, at taking on the wind and the waves, at spending time amongst the non-human animals of the sea. It’s not so long ago that our ancestors were much more highly attuned to the ways of nature and the universe, and it’s not forgotten in our genes.

It’s no coincidence that the kayak is a vessel designed by the nature-based Inuit people thousands of years ago. Even although our modern-day versions may be technologically facilitated in terms of the design process and materials used, the fundamentals remain the same. In many ways, the kayak spans time and re-connects us with the elements of which we are a part. It returns to us that which has been lost and helps us to heal. You might say that it comes to us naturally.

So, as I sit here and count my blessings and look forward to a new decade, the thing that I am most grateful for is the ability to get out on the water and engage in the life-affirming and unforgettable experience of being immersed (in every sense!) in the natural world, for however long that opportunity exists. And working in harmony with the healing potential of nature, my intention is to make that opportunity last as long as possible.

The winter solstice has passed and the days are already getting longer. A year full of adventure awaits!

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Decade!

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

Four star paddling

For those of you who may have stumbled across this post and are now anticipating a discourse on the various components of the BCU 4 Star Sea Kayaking syllabus, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. The assessment to which I refer does not relate to paddling capability. It does, however, relate to that other essential requirement when out on the water – style!

Would someone turn the lights on?

Would someone turn the lights on please?

Yes, you’ve either got or you haven’t got it, and I’m pleased to mention that it so happens that my paddling pals are not lacking when it comes to a bit of upmarket class. Of course, they are perfectly capable of getting “down and dirty” in rough weather, wilderness camping, surviving on berries type situations, but they are also capable of accommodating a more civilised, leisurely and altogether tasteful approach to sea kayaking when the opportunity presents.

And such opportunities tend to present themselves on winter days, when one feels the need to reward oneself for simply getting out of bed on the water, such are the temperatures and general dreichness. Conditions last Saturday were calm, although the lighting resembled that of a nuclear winter (a not altogether inappropriate analogy as I shall later explain). It was so dim, my camera seemed convinced I’d left the lens cover on and refused to focus, although I did manage one or 2 gloomy shots. Not even Barrie’s orange glow could brighten things up.

Just as we were about to launch, a group of road cyclists breezed past us, one of whom shouted, “And we thought we were mad!”. As Maggi helpfully reminded them, at least sea kayakers don’t break anything when they fall over.

A spot of kayak yoga on Loch Long

A spot of kayak yoga on Loch Long

We departed from the Holy Loch and, in what might be called setting a trend (for a couple of us at least), we once again headed in the direction of Knockderry. An initial spot of choppiness gave way to some flat water conditions quite in keeping with the leisurely, stylish day that we had planned (although one of our number was heard to complain pitifully about a lack of waves, like it was a bad thing). Soon Knockderry House Hotel came into view and we landed elegantly on the beach. The hotelier and staff greeted us at the door by informing us that the “men in white boats” would be arriving shortly. How thrilling, I thought – more kayakers! Until someone informed me that I’d misheard and that the word used had, in fact, been “coats”. You might therefore think that this would suggest that our soggy presence was not desired in such a fine, 4 star establishment as the Knockderry House Hotel, however, that was not the case at all as we were heartily welcomed into the (now legendary) warmth of the bar lounge.

Our table awaits ... Knockderry House Hotel

Our table awaits ... Knockderry House Hotel

Menus were handed out and soon we were selecting our choices for lunch. I didn’t even hear the chef cursing from the kitchen after being presented with the various quirks and limitations presented by the 2 “special” diners amongst us who were trying to avoid death by allergic anaphylaxis and/or any food with a face. Our waitress insisted that we should eat lunch in the restaurant despite our embarrassment at not having dressed for the occasion, although Barrie subsequently pointed out that he did have a suit on (albeit a wetsuit). Our embarrassment was only mildly alleviated by the fact that we were, in fact, the only diners. Suffice to say, Knockderry House Hotel gets an enthusiastic thumbs up for its amiability and hospitality towards sea kayakers. If you’re in the vicinity, do call by and experience it for yourself (just leave your spraydeck and BA outside).

After lunch, a quick demonstration was given by Julia of yoga-for-kayaking which involved a good deal of rolling about on the bar floor. I know what this must have looked like (and have deliberately withheld the potentially incriminating photos), but you have to take my word that it was serious sea kayaking business. We then exited back into the gloom and cold.

Vanguard submarine

Vanguard submarine

And so back to matters nuclear. Our return journey found us sharing the water with a large Vanguard class submarine, a common sight on the Clyde, making its way to the Faslane base. I am reliably informed that this vessel can carry a payload of 16 American Trident missiles. As a bit of a sobering exercise, I did a little calculation on this and I estimate that one such submarine can pack 7600 times the explosive punch of the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima (do correct me if I’m wrong here). Having tuned into my VHF radio, it was unsurprising to find that they were not broadcasting their maneouvres on Channel 16 and a quick scan failed to reveal the no doubt top secret, encrypted military channel that they were using to communicate (in Navajo, I imagine) with their small flotilla of RIBs and MOD Police escorts. We resisted the urge to go join the procession for fear of being shot shooed away.

Heading home

Heading home

This had proven an interesting, although slightly surreal, distraction, but we were soon back at the Holy Loch just as a rain shower moved in. After some fumbling around, our numb hands managed to tie the odd knot sufficient to keep the kayaks at least partially secured to the roofracks until we reached Julia’s for the obligatory end-of-journey, recap-and-reflect-on-a-lovely-day-out cup of tea.

As you can tell, I am quite a fan of this most proper form of sea paddling. If I am to aspire to any kind of star system, this is the one that perhaps holds the most promise for me personally and that contains any hope at all of attaining 5 stars!

Proper sea kayaking

After spending another Friday anxiously hitting the “Refresh” button whilst viewing the Met Office site on my Web browser, I realised that there was no getting away from it – Saturday (14 Nov) was going to be windy. Indeed, I awoke to a view of a very choppy Clyde, as well as a strange lack of appetite. It was decision-time: should I call my friends and wimp out, or bite the bullet and show up for a day’s paddling? This is a difficult judgement call when one must weigh up one’s abilities versus the nuances of the weather forecast versus imagined fears versus the abilities of one’s fellow paddlers. No-one likes to be a liability but, at the same time, how can you progress from liability to asset without going out and gaining experience? Eventually, and in the spirit of the yogic concept of “letting go”, I decided to go with the flow, to turn up and see what would happen.

I tried to ignore the view to my right as I drove along the Innellan and Dunoon shore road, although occasional bouts of jostling, confused waves caught my attention. There’s nothing like a dose of clapotis to make you feel a bit squeamish in the morning.

A sense of foreboding

A sense of foreboding

My paddling pals couldn’t help but express some congenial surprise at my appearance. No, not my stylish fleecewear, but more to do with the fact that I am not known for jumping to the head of the queue when rough water paddling opportunities arise. I instantly latched upon their reaction as a cue for me to bow out gracefully after an obvious misjudgement on my part. They, however, would hear none of it and insisted that I join them, even although (being that they are of advanced abilities) I am certain it meant an adjustment to their potentially more ambitious plans.

The prevailing wind was due to be westerly, so it was decided that we would put in at Ardentinny with a view to considering 2 potential destinations. Magda profferred a choice between the “warmth” (emphasis hers) of Knockderry House Hotel on the eastern side of Loch Long, or the (somewhat cooler) “mysteries” of Carrick Castle to the north. Purely because at least 2 of us had recently visited Carrick Castle (and for no other reason), we decided to head for Knockderry.

Crossing Loch Long was breezy but manageable and, despite all of my noises to the contrary, I will confess (just a tiny bit, let’s not get carried away now) that I do enjoy some weather. I love the feeling of freedom that is afforded by being out in the midst of the elements in your small craft, the sense of being in a minority of fortunate folks who have the chance to experience this level of exposure to nature. Surrounded by changing seas, and skies that range from bright to brooding, being followed by the occasional seal and laughed at by the seabirds, certainly beats sitting at home*.

We duly reached the shores of Knockderry and I managed a small surf landing, something I definitely need to practise. The great thing is that, in my Isel (with its lovely footplate), I now have sensation in my feet upon exiting my kayak and can walk like a normal person up the beach. I am still getting over the novelty of this.

The warmth of Knockderry House Hotel

Knockderry House Hotel

It seems that the owners and staff at the Knockderry House Hotel have no issues with sea kayakers dripping their way into their cosy and well-appointed establishment. Magda had been correct about the warmth as we took up prime position next to the log fire. Just the ticket! As a well-known coach has commented already (hello Richard) – this was proper sea kayaking! Lunch was served and it certainly looked very nice. Due to previously referenced dietary issues, I chose instead to dine later al fresco in the shelter of Lewis’s luxury emergency shelter. This wasn’t bad at all actually – the company was excellent and, unlike the others, I had cake.

Soon we were gazing out to the white horses on Loch Long and, I suddenly noticed that I was feeling absolutely no sense of anxiety at the sight of them. Obviously, the company that I keep (and that would include my Isel) is having an influence upon me.

White horses on Loch Long (Me? Bovvered?)

White horses on Loch Long

We battled our way against the wind to the other side of the loch and, upon reaching more sheltered waters, we proceeded to chat about important paddling matters. From Lewis I learned a great deal about paddle types, lengths and blade sizes and we swapped paddles in order for me to experience a Werner Shuna carbon model – an interesting revelation.

No paddle expedition is complete these days without a cuppa at Julia’s on the way home, at which point some time was spent exploring Facebook and its many uses. Against my better judgement, I now have an account and am publishing away merrily there as well. Between Facebook, my blog and all the many useful paddling forums and Websites out there, if I’m not careful, I’ll soon have no time for actual paddling. I know, I’m just being ridiculous. I could always give up work.

* With apologies to Alan who is still sitting at home battling injury.

Relaxing your head

After reaching my recent rolling impasse, and thereby dropping into a vast chasm of existential angst and disillusionment getting a bit messed up in the head, it was evident that a return visit to the pool was called for. This time, we journeyed down to Garnock pool for the first time in ages. We’d already been down to Kilbirnie Loch a couple of weeks ago to reacquaint ourselves with the Garnock club and it was great to catch up with everyone there. It was, as they say, a sort of homecoming.

So I went along to the pool on Friday night with very few expectations. It was interesting to note how much more pleasant travelling over on to the ferry and driving down to Kilbirnie became when I wasn’t fretting over irrational fears of failure, drowning etc. Perhaps this attitude could be applied a little more broadly.

Under the critical eye of Euan, I demonstrated my progress (ha) in rolling. Of course, my first attempt failed and I relaxed into the acceptance that I was, indeed, back at square one. There was, therefore, no-one more surprised than I was when my second attempt resulted in success. This time, I refrained from leaping into wild displays of ecstatic triumphalism (or at least breaking into a happy dance), recalling how far my ego had come crashing down the last time that happened. Instead, I allowed myself some contentment in the knowledge that my learnings hadn’t gone completely to waste after all. Being that it seems that I can now roll 2 different kinds of river kayak, perhaps there is some renewed and realistic hope for learning to roll my sea kayak.

Towards the end of our practice session, Euan observed my roll again and suggested that I should relax my head. Anyone learning rolling will be well familiar with the importance of head positioning. As the head is so heavy, it is better to allow the water to support it before bringing it up last, thus lessening the “burden” on your roll. Of course, this is quite counter-intuitive as every novice feels an urgent need to raise their head the heck out of the water first. After working to overcome that particular instinct, my own tendency has been to forget about my head altogether (not difficult), or to focus on it too much and somehow hinder my roll all the more. However, Euan’s employment of the code word, “relax”, tapped right into my yoga learnings and the resultant roll felt almost effortless by comparison. Am on to something now.

How often I’ve been in a challenging yoga asana, only to hear my teacher‘s guidance to bring awareness to where there is resistance and to let it go. Naturally, this guidance can apply to kayaking and beyond. Just about everything in life gets a whole lot easier when you learn to relax and let go.

Buddha Frog

Does a frog have Buddha nature?

Does a frog have Buddha nature?

Forgive me for straying a little (a lot?) off topic, but I wanted to share a small something with you. Coming home one recent evening, we found a visitor on our doorstep. It seemed that our usual doorstep resident, the garden Buddha, had acquired a little student. A frog had taken up a meditational pose alongside him and was evidently lost in deep contemplation, so much so that he was oblivious to our shuffling past him to enter the house, put on the lights etc.

There is a Zen koan which asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”, the answer to which is considered inaccessible and elusive. Adjusting this koan slightly, however, I think that we may have found a valid response – a frog most certainly does!

Kayak Yoga

That may seem a strange juxtaposition of words, but kayaking and yoga do indeed go very well together. Who has not draped themselves extravagantly over the stern of their kayak after a hard day’s paddling in order to enjoy the wonderful back muscle stretch that this affords? It has become the case that activities such as climbing now go hand-in-hand with yoga, with many climbing gyms offering yoga classes, and many leading climbers becoming proficient in both activities. This is extending to other sports and physical pursuits as the benefits of yoga are increasingly recognised. One need only refer to the definitive Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers by Gordon Brown (no, the other one) to find (on pages 33 to 40) a section on “Preparing Mind and Body”, which includes some useful yoga stretches and advice.

The reference to preparing the mind is, of course, highly pertinent. The ancient discipline of yoga is not simply about stretching. I confess that, at one time, that was all that I thought it comprised. I admit to watching attendees arrive for the lunchtime yoga class at my gym and to harbouring delusions of superiority. While they were om-ing away their lunchbreak, I was out there doing “proper” exercise and kicking butt on the running track/elliptical/stepper. I’ve learned a few things since then. First, while those yoga students were building strength and flexibility, I was building up to injury. Second, with the exception of my own ego, no-one actually cared whose butt I kicked in the gym or elsewhere.

It took me a while to come to those realisations and 2 situations were instrumental in leading me to yoga. One scenario was, indeed, that of physical injury. I discovered that, for all the running, biking, hiking etc I’d done, I had a weak lower back which led to a great deal of pain and discomfort on my acquisition of a garden. Gardening is the ultimate back workout, of course, and mine simply wasn’t up for it. Years of sitting at a desk, combined with ever-tightening hamstrings (from all the running, biking etc), and a total lack of conditioning of my back meant that bending down and standing became unbearable. This, in combination with hip flexor tendinitis, made running a non-starter. Being that going to see your GP with a sore back is the equivalent of going to see him/her with a cold, I realised that it was time to learn how to help myself. Around this timeframe, Alan and I were also dealing with some pretty trying life circumstances involving family illness, career changes, house/country moves etc, and a general sense of being overwhelmed. Similarly, I realised that I could either sink with it all, or learn to swim. During my research into the physical benefits of yoga, I uncovered a mine of information on the benefits that relate to the mind. In fact, it can be said that yoga is more about the mind than it is about the body, being essentially “moving meditation”.

So how exactly can this assist with kayaking? Obviously, there are the physical benefits of the holistic approach that yoga offers. It’s easy to focus on one or 2 areas of the body, whilst neglecting or overworking other areas that in turn could lead to injury elsewhere. By addressing the whole body, yoga ensures that all the interconnected muscles and tendons (right, left, front, back, top and bottom) are kept flexible and strong and therefore stand you in good stead for continuing years of “fitness” in the truest sense of the word. In addition, by linking movement with breath, we learn to calm our minds and I have certainly directly experienced the benefit of this, particularly when submerged in a failing roll. Yoga encourages you to check your ego at the door, to ignore the “monkey mind” that is busy telling you that you’re making an eejit of yourself, that everyone’s watching, that you’ll never learn to roll/brace/surf/do the lotus etc, and to simply breathe and be. Sometimes it’s difficult for your ego to accept that it doesn’t have to be the centre of attention, but eventually it will take a back seat and let you get on with the business of living more fully in the present moment.

There are many different styles of yoga, from beginners to advanced, from gentle to dynamic. I have the very good fortune of having an excellent yoga teacher in Cowal whose ashtanga classes I attend each week. I am attracted to the more dynamic forms of yoga, probaby because of my background in outdoor pursuits, but that doesn’t mean there is no appeal in the “gentler” styles. Some would argue that the less physically demanding forms are better for taming the mind and that, especially in today’s society, savasana (or corpse pose) is the most difficult pose of all.

It seems that I cannot locate the photo of me doing a headstand in my kayak that should accompany this entry. That’s probably because it’s never been taken (and likely never will). The important thing is that we are all exactly where we’re meant to be – in kayaking, in yoga, in life, and I’m grateful to yoga for allowing me to accept this.

“We are training in choicelessness and kindness. Giving up all hope of fruition, we recommit each day to doing the best we can”. Ani Pema Chödrön

Nordkapp Nirvana

Valley Nordkapp LV and Nordkapp

Valley Nordkapp LV and Nordkapp

Finally, the happy day arrived when we were united with our new Valley Nordkapps. We drove to Loch Lomondside on Thursday and met up with the chaps from Desperate Measures who kindly delivered our new charges to us, having travelled all the way from their birthplace (the kayaks’, that is) in Nottingham. My Nordkapp LV came wrapped in a big tubi-grip (which I’m sure will come in handy again some day for a very large sprain), and Alan’s Nordkapp was still in its factory wrappings. We loaded the kayaks on to our j-bars in the middle of a torrential downpour which I viewed as an auspicious baptism of sorts. Alan discovered that it was no longer feasible to suspend himself off of the ties when tightening them, as fibre-glass kayaks are slightly more delicate than our old plastic boats. On the drive south, a rainbow appeared (another auspicious sign) which had me contemplating a suitable name. I think Rainbow Warrior is, however, taken.

Nordkapp

Nordkapp

By happy coincidence, it was club night at the loch, so we headed straight for Kilbirnie. Our beautiful vessels were unveiled and launched (minus champagne, alas) amidst much favourable comment from our fellow paddlers. It was quite a privilege to have the history of the Nordkapp related to us by the elder statesman of UK kayaking, Duncan Winning, who played no small part in the development of the very kayaks we now proudly own.

Alan and I took great pleasure in birling around in circles in the loch as we edged with abandon, feeling as if the kayaks were an extension of ourselves. Finally, our energy was being channelled directly to the kayak, and not dissipating somewhere along the way as used to be the case. We found ourselves wondering how we’d managed for a whole entire year of paddling without this amazing advantage.

The self-rescue question remained prominent in my mind and I felt that there was no point in losing an opportunity to practice. So, as the evening darkness descended, in I jumped, once again marvelling at how liftable the Nordkapp LV is as I righted it and then clambered on top. I was able to maintain my balance and shuffled along to regain my seat, almost effortlessly. Yet another auspicious sign! It felt as if my kayak was proving its allegiance to me – the start of a beautiful relationship.

Happiness is ... a new Nordkapp LV

Happiness is ... a new Nordkapp LV

We were back out on Sunday in the flat calm of the Clyde as we paddled from Toward to Bute, to the Kyles of Bute, to Loch Striven and back to Toward. We must have sounded a bit like the nearby eider ducks, ooh-ing and aww-ing away at the wonderful qualities of our respective kayaks. The only thing missing was a bit of chop or swell in order to test the Nordkapps’ legendary performance in rougher seas, but I’m sure that will come soon enough.

I recognise that I have spent a great deal of time recently expounding affection for what is essentially a material thing. This rather contradicts the principles of non-attachment that I have been studying in yoga and in relation to mindfulness generally. I would argue in my defence that my kayak is not purely a material “thing”. It is very much a vehicle for focusing one’s mind away from the clutter of everyday life, the anxieties, the conditioned responses, the judgements. When you are out on the water, at one with your kayak and the sea, there is nothing else for you to do except just be in the moment. And that is nothing short of spiritual.